Helpful Tips Steve Barnes 01/12/2020

The complete fire safety guide for landlords

A fire in your property can cause devastating damage, leaving your home uninhabitable in a matter of minutes and resulting in costly, time-consuming repairs which result in loss of rental income. More importantly, a fire poses a significant risk to your tenants’ safety. In fact, the risks of experiencing a fire are seven times higher for people who live in rented or shared accommodation, according to Firemark.  

Fire safety should be a priority throughout the year, but as we approach the festive season it is important to be particularly vigilant. Every year, firefighters warn of a spike in house fires caused by increased use of heating and electrical appliances. Alcohol consumption combined with candles, Christmas trees, fairy lights and decorations can also play a part.

As a landlord, there are a number of legal obligations you need to comply with to make sure your rental property is safe. In the event that there is a fire and you have not provided suitable fire safe accommodation, legal action can be taken against you. It is therefore extremely important for landlords to take fire safety seriously.

This article, written by NRLA Property Insurance provider, Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance, will explore the most common causes of fire, how you can reduce the likelihood of fire, and the fire safety regulations all landlords need to know.

Causes of fire

There are many causes of fires in a property. Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance has received claims for fires caused by a range of factors, including candles, faulty or unattended appliances, overuse of extension leads, cigarettes, deep fat fryers and portable heaters. Our most reported fire claims are due to arson and electrical faults. Find out more in our A-Z of Property Claims eBook.

Although fires in dwellings have been steadily decreasing over the years, fire incident statistics reveal that, in 2018-19 the fire and rescue services still attended 29,570 fires in dwellings in England alone. The majority of these were caused by accident due to misuse of equipment or apparatus, or due to faulty appliances.

Fire damage claims are among the highest that insurers receive. Between 2015 and 2020, the average claim for fire paid by Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance was £18,503. The highest claim paid out during this period was for a case where the tenant caused the fire on purpose – a staggering total of £265,385 was paid out for this claim. Alarmingly,10 per cent of fires reported in 2018-19 were caused deliberately.

How to reduce the risks of fire

While accidents unfortunately do happen, there are practical steps both landlords and tenants can take to prevent a fire from starting and spreading.

Landlords’ fire safety responsibilities

It is incredibly important for landlords to follow the specific fire safety regulations for private rental properties. Landlords are legally required to take a number of safety precautions to protect their property and their tenants. As a bare minimum landlords must:

  • Provide a smoke alarm on each storey and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room with a solid fuel burning appliance (for example a coal fire or wood burning stove)
  • Check tenants have access to escape routes at all times
  • Make sure the furniture and furnishings supplied are fire safe
  • Provide fire alarms and extinguishers if the property is a large house in multiple occupation (HMO)

Regulations are particularly stringent around HMOs so it’s important to contact your local council to understand the specific regulations that apply if you’re letting an HMO.

Here, we break down in more detail landlords’ legal responsibilities when it comes to reducing the risks of fire.

1. Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms

The most common cause of death in fire related incidents in 2018-19 was due to being overcome by gas or smoke – working smoke alarms save lives. Landlords are required by law to have at least one working smoke alarm installed on every floor of their rental properties and a carbon monoxide alarm in any room containing a solid fuel burning appliance. Landlords must also make sure alarms are in working order at the start of each new tenancy and should encourage tenants to continue to check alarms on a monthly basis. It’s also a good idea to inspect smoke and carbon monoxide alarms when carrying out routine property inspections.

In addition to the legal requirements, the London Fire Brigade strongly recommends an additional heat detector in the kitchen, and a smoke alarm in the lounge and hallway of individual flats and houses to give early warning to residents. GOV.UK provides a useful booklet on smoke and carbon monoxide alarms for landlords.

2. Access to escape routes

Landlords are legally responsible for making sure tenants have access to a safe and reliable escape route at all times. Escape routes can be external, such as stairways fixed to the sides of buildings, or internal. To make sure they can be used in the event of a fire, escape routes need to have emergency lighting and floors and walls should be made of fire-resistant materials. They should also be accessible from every floor and every room in the property to avoid tenants becoming trapped, and tenants should be made aware of what to do in an emergency to ensure they can exit the property as quickly as possible.

There are more stringent rules for HMOs, which can be large and harder to get out of. More complex rental properties should be assessed by a person who has comprehensive training or experience in fire risk assessment.

3. Fire-safe furniture and furnishings

Landlords must ensure that any furniture and furnishings provided meet fire safety standards and are made from fire-resistant materials. This information can usually be found by checking that the manufacturer’s label carries a fire-safety symbol. The only items that don’t have to meet these standards are mattresses, bed-bases, pillows, cushions and bed covers, but of course it is best to go above and beyond minimum requirements and do all you can to make sure that any you are meeting high safety standards. Landlords are not responsible for tenant-owned furniture and appliances – everything the tenant brings inside the property is their own responsibility.

4.Fire extinguishers and blankets

Fire extinguishers are only obligatory in large HMOs but it is a good idea to go beyond the minimum requirements where possible, so you may wish to provide one regardless of your property type. In HMOs, one fire extinguisher should be provided per floor and one fire blanket should be provided for each kitchen. Like alarms, extinguishers should be checked at the start of each tenancy and rechecked periodically during inspections. It’s important to advise tenants on how and when to use fire extinguishers and blankets. Extinguishers should only be used on the type of fire they are designed for.

5.Fire risk assessment

Periodical fire risk assessments are a legal requirement for many rental properties and best practice in all. They identify possible causes of fires, highlighting potential hazards and the precautions the landlord should take to reduce the likelihood of a fire. It is a good idea to review the risk assessment every two years and update it every four years. For older buildings or those over three storeys, the risk assessment should be reviewed annually and updated every three years.

There is no mandatory method of fire risk assessment, but it’s worth noting that most fire and rescue services offer free home visits as part of their ‘Safe and Well’ initiative to identify potential fire risks within the home. This includes knowing what to do in order to reduce or prevent the risk of fire, ensuring working smoke alarms are present and putting together an escape plan in case a fire does break out.

6. Fire doors

Currently only HMOs are legally required to have fire doors. It’s important to check out your legal obligations for the installation, siting and operation of fire doors if you operate any HMOs. Fire doors are very effective at containing fires once they break out, delaying the spread of both fire and toxic smoke, minimising damage and giving tenants more time to get to safety. Since many fires start in the kitchen, it is worth considering fitting one in the kitchens of other rental properties as an extra precaution beyond minimum legal requirements. It’s also important to advise tenants on how to ensure fire doors are working as intended, for example by reminding them not to prop them open. 

7. Electrical safety inspection

Landlords are responsible for making sure that electrical wiring, sockets and fuse boxes are safe throughout the tenancy. New regulations announced in January 2019 brought all rental properties in line with legislation that already applied to HMOs. These regulations require landlords to have the electrical installations in their properties inspected and tested by a person who is qualified and competent, at least every five years. Landlords have to provide a copy of the electrical safety report to their tenants, and to their local authority if requested.

The regulations came into force for new tenancies on 1 June 2020 and will apply to existing tenancies from 1 April 2021. While these measures are primarily designed to protect tenants, improvements to electrical safety should also lead to a reduction in electrical fire risk for landlords, one of Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance’s most reported fire claims.

8. Portable appliance testing

Landlords should also check that any electrical appliances provided are in safe working order and have a British or European safety mark. Portable appliance testing (PAT) isn’t compulsory but it is recommended if electrical appliances of any kind are provided in the rental property. The majority of accidental domestic fires in the UK are caused by electricity and most of these by electrical products, often in the kitchen, for example by cooking appliances and white goods, so it’s worth paying particular attention to these.

It is a good idea to use a licensed PAT specialist to help with larger properties such as HMOs, where it is likely that more electrical appliances will be provided, increasing the risk of something going wrong.

It’s also important that landlords warn tenants about the hazards of using extension leads to overload sockets and that sufficient sockets are provided in each room to prevent this from happening.

9. Gas safety check

Landlords are required by law to make sure any gas equipment they supply is safely installed and maintained by a Gas Safe registered engineer and that they have a registered engineer do an annual gas safety check on each appliance and flue. Landlords must also provide their tenants with a copy of the gas safety check record before they move in, or within 28 days of the check. This is a legal requirement and each individual certificate has to be renewed every year. Gas safety isn’t just about complying with the law, it’s ultimately about tenant safety. Gas is volatile and highly flammable, and if it leaks, it can cause an explosion or fire. Gas safety checks will also check for the presence of carbon monoxide, which is poisonous and can be deadly.

10. Banning smoking indoors

There are already restrictions in place around where tenants can and can’t smoke in HMOs, for example in shared areas. But although it is not against the law for tenants to smoke in rental properties, landlords can include a clause in the tenancy agreement stating that smoking is not permitted. A significant proportion of accidental house fires are caused by cigarettes. Banning smoking indoors also reduces the likelihood of burns to floors, carpets and surfaces.

Tenants’ fire safety responsibilities

Although landlords must make sure they meet their legal fire safety responsibilities and duty of care to their tenants, the responsibility for preventing fires in rented properties falls to tenants too.

Tenants need to make sure they are doing all they can to mitigate fire risks throughout the property. Good landlord and tenant communication can help facilitate this. For example, landlords should:

  • Fully outline fire safety measures, such as the importance of carrying out regular (ideally monthly) smoke alarm tests and ask tenants to contact them without delay if they are worried about fire safety in the property
  • Provide advice to prevent electrical fires – switch off and unplug appliances when not in use, don’t overload extension leads and plug sockets
  • Remind tenants to take care when in the kitchen – remove pans from the heat if leaving the kitchen, keep tea towels and cloths away from the cooker and hob, clean the oven, hob and grill frequently as a build-up of grease can ignite a fire
  • Ask tenants to keep Christmas cards and decorations away from heaters, fireplaces and candles and not to leave candles and open flames unattended
  • Advise tenants to minimise the use of flammable substances and never to leave any near a heat source. Clothes dried near heaters cause thousands of house fires every year
  • Make sure tenants know how to be prepared – agree a safe place to keep the window and door keys so that everyone can find them in case of an emergency, make sure everyone knows the escape route and have a second exit in the event a fire is blocking the first one
  • Remind tenants to keep escape routes and exits free of obstructions and not to prop open fire doors
  • Make sure tenants don’t store combustible objects near boilers or fuse boxes

Of course, in practice it can be hard to enforce some of these measures and tenants won’t always follow the rules. It’s important to put all your advice in writing, so that you have evidence that you have done your best to reduce the likelihood of fire and protect your tenants.

What to do if there’s a fire in your property

In the event of a fire, it’s vital to act quickly to save lives:

  • Use a fire extinguisher or fire blankets to combat the fire if it is safe to do so
  • Call the Emergency services on 999 and ask for the fire brigade
  • Make sure that the property is safe before allowing anyone to re-enter
  • Take time-stamped photos if it is safe to do so
  • Contact your insurers to notify them of the situation and begin the claims process. They will advise you on the next steps to take

The importance of insurance

It is vital to make sure you have landlord insurance in place to mitigate against fire risk. Cover won’t stop damage from being caused, but it will provide peace of mind that you will not be out of pocket for the cost of any repairs or rebuilds – and potentially the cost of lost rental income or temporarily rehousing tenants - in the event of a deliberate arson attack or an accidental fire.  

Steve Barnes, Associate Director at Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance, offers his advice:

“Prevention is always best when it comes to fire. Making sure you have working fire alarms that are regularly tested and showing tenants how to test them, is vital in the event of a fire. Unfortunately we are seeing an increase in arson claims, so always thoroughly reference check tenants. Of course, despite doing all you can to protect your property from fire, accidents do happen and the costs of repairing fire damage can be very high. This is why landlords should make sure they have comprehensive landlord insurance cover in place.”

For any fire claim to be paid out, you’ll also need to ensure that you comply with relevant fire safety regulations. If you don’t keep up with the fire safety regulations and do all you can to reduce the likelihood of fire, you risk hefty fines or even a prison sentence. More importantly, you are jeopardising the safety of your tenants and potentially risking their lives.

Is your rental property insured in the event of a fire? Find out more about Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance.

For more information on claims, Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance’s A to Z of Property Claims eBook is a practical guide, packed full of useful advice to help you understand more about claims, their causes and what your policy will and won’t cover. Download your free copy in exchange for a landlord insurance quote.

Steve Barnes

Steve Barnes Associate Director, Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance

Steve Barnes has worked with landlords and leading landlord associations for over 20 years and oversees Hamilton Fraser's property insurance division. Our award winning landlord insurance offering, Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance, has been providing comprehensive cover for landlords since 1996. Whether you have a single property or a portfolio, Total Landlord Insurance has a property insurance policy that will give you value for money and the required protection to support your business requirements. Our dedicated claims team of expert advisers deal with more than 82% of claims in-house and provide customers with a sole point of contact should the worst happen. Named 'Best Landlord Insurance Provider' for an unprecedented three years in a row and with a Trustscore rating of 4.6 out of 5 on Trustpilot, you can rest assured that you are in safe hands.

See all articles by Steve Barnes